Shelby County Schools: The Hard Questions



John Aitken
  • John Aitken
Shelby County Schools put its best foot forward Thursday, and it was an impressive step, but a timid one.

Superintendent John Aitken and assistant superintendent Lois Williams made a polished power-point presentation to the transition planning team overseeing the merger of the city and county schools.

They knocked down some myths about diversity and innovation. SCS was 80 percent white in 2000 but is 52 percent white today. It had 9,000 applications this year, hired 319 new teachers, and its teacher retention rate is 91 percent.

And they gave credit where it is due to the 62 percent of graduates who score 19 or better on the ACT, qualifying them for state lottery scholarships for college.

Aitken is easy to listen to, and he speaks from 29 years experience. But the transition team should consider inviting a few other experts on county schools who might expose some of the fault lines and sensitive subjects that didn't make it into yesterday's presentation. Here are five of them:

Jackie Welch, the suburban developer who sold SCS nine school sites in 15 years, which in turn dictated where the subdivisions would be built that populated the schools. Welch is plain spoken and an expert on suburban growth.

James Mitchell and James Anderson, the former SCS superintendents with whom Welch dealt. Mitchell is now a consultant and has been hired by suburbs considering forming their own muncipal school systems. The transition team should talk to him.

Bernice Donald, the former federal judge in Memphis (now on the Court of Appeals), who ruled that SCS needed to redraw its school boundaries to eliminate racially identifiable schools. Her ruling was overturned, but not before it threw a scare into SCS.

Ernest Chism, the former principal at Germantown High School and current member of the school board. Another straight talker with a vast store of experience and information in the real world. During his career, Germantown schools went from majority white to majority black (and back, in some cases), and Germantown built Houston High School (where Aitken formerly was principal).

The past and present principals of Southwind High School, an all-black, relatively new county school. How did that happen in a system that is 38 percent black, and what's the deal with turning county schools over to Memphis City Schools?

If the transition team wants to be relevant and informed (as I believe it does), it needs to move beyond power-point presentations to the players and story tellers. Who really gives a hoot what happened in Chattanooga or Nashville or Charlotte years ago? This is our stew. The more uncomfortable it makes them, the better. If the discussion gets a little heated, fine, they're getting somewhere in that case. This process is hard, and there are no shortcuts to good results.

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